If seventysomething soul singer Jimmy Hughes is feeling a little bit of déja vu, it's hardly a symptom of aging. Hughes' 1964 single "Steal Away" was the inaugural release for FAME records, the label and publishing company based out of the legendary studio at Muscle Shoals, Ala.
Until 1976, FAME released material by Southern soul legends including Dan Penn, Arthur Conley, Candi Staton and Clarence Carter. Dozens of other soul stars Etta James, Otis Redding, Little Richard and Aretha Franklin included traveled south to record there and help themselves to the distinctive sound of Muscle Shoals' session men. This week, a collection of 18 remastered tracks Hughes recorded at FAME in the "60s some never before released will be the premier offering from the relaunched label.
Hughes was a church singer until the day he took the title for "Steal Away" from a gospel song, "Steal Away to Jesus," and rewrote it as a tale of lovers meeting in secret. His recording done in one take convinced owner Rick Hall that he had a hit on his hands. Hall and then 15-year-old Dan Penn (who later became one of the defining songwriters in Southern soul) hit the road with a trunkful of 45-RPM records and a few cases of vodka. The duo set out on a road-trip tour of the southeast's radio stations, leaving a record and a bottle at each stop, including cities like Little Rock, Ark., Tupelo, Miss., Memphis, Tenn., Mobile, Ala., and New Orleans. The plan worked; "Steal Away" was a runaway regional hit and the label was off to a big start.
During the years he was with FAME, Hughes who left a job at a rubber factory to join the label spent a great deal of time living the punishing touring life required for musicians trying to build a profile in the "60s.
"I was making about two dollars an hour, and I'd just gotten married and had three kids," he explains. "I saw them dollars flying around and I said, I guess I have to do this."
He was in the studio when Aretha Franklin cut "I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)," and he sang backing vocals on Wilson Pickett's version of Chris Kenner's "Land of 1,000 Dances," but what he remembers most is the madness of life on the road, when sometimes as many as five days would pass before Hughes ever saw an actual bed and a few hours to sleep in it.
'Back then, booking agents didn't care if they had you in New Orleans one night, L.A. the next, and bring you back to Baton Rouge the night after that," he remembers. Many artists turned to dangerous activities to keep it together, though Hughes, the gospel-trained family man, steered clear. He played dates with Ernie K-Doe, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson and Garnett Mimms, but rarely hung around to socialize between gigs.
"I mostly traveled by myself and tried to venture away from that crowd, because a lot of what they were doing, I didn't want to get into," he says. "A lot of things go on on those buses that you don't want to get caught up in. I always thought for myself, although I did drink liquor."
Hughes left FAME in 1967 for Stax Records, and cut one LP, Something Special (produced by Booker T. & the M.G.s' drummer Al Jackson Jr.), for the Memphis label, though Stax went bankrupt before Hughes had a chance to break through with it. Today, Hughes believes that his songs and the many other classic sides that came out of Muscle Shoals and FAME will resonate with listeners, even after 40 years.
"It's the stories," he says. "Not like the rap stuff that uses all kinds of profanity. And even lots of youngsters now are listening to the kind of stuff we cut back in the day. It's good stories that make a song last." You mean like the story of the illicit lovers in "Steal Away," a perennial topic for hits (including the enduring "Dark End Of The Street," penned by fellow Muscle Shoals alum Dan Penn), I asked him?
"I thought that title would be good for people who were trying to get out, slip out, get over on their man, or whatever," Hughes says with a wry laugh. "And it did. It was very commercial. I just hope nobody got any ideas or got hurt from those words."
- Jimmy Hughes started his soul-singing career with the hit "Steal Away."